Blowing the Spirit: the tradition of brass band performances at funerals in Poland.

Maciej Kierzkowski, PhD Candidate, Music

My initial interest in brass bands was sparked randomly while collecting materials to research the past of my family. I learned that my grandfather’s brother was buried without a priest, and that during his secular funeral a glassworks brass band from a nearby village performed the ceremonial functions. As well as throwing light upon my family’s history, this information made me realize the importance of the brass band in contemporary Polish culture. The main question that appeared in my mind was, how did the funeral of my ancestor look (and sound), and what particular role did the brass band play in it? The opportunity to address this question appeared soon (in 2003) while conducting research for my Masters’ thesis on the brass bands of the Mazovia region in central Poland.

This blog entry presents the original field recording of the funeral that was made in situ in Godzianów village in Mazovia region in Central Poland. It was performed by Orkiestra Dęta OSP Godzianów (the Godzianow Voluntary Fireman Brigade Brass Band), and the deceased was one of its former bandsmen. The following is translated from my original field-work notes as an outsider [click the player below to follow along with the recording – numbers in brackets refer to timings in the recording]:

[00’00] ‘Before starting the funeral ceremony, members of the band and other participants of the ritual gather in the yard in front of the house of the deceased. Musicians dressed in fireman uniforms come to the site in fire trucks. Another truck brings in other firemen that are not musicians. The instrumental configuration of the band includes: 1 clarinet in Bb, 3 alto saxophones in Eb, 2 tenor saxophones in Bb, 1 trumpet in Bb, 1 bass saxhorn in Eb, 1 baritone saxhorn in Bb,1 tenor saxhorn in Bb,1 bass drum.

[00’50] The first musical piece performed by the band is a funeral march that is played during the elevation of the coffin from the house of the deceased. At that time, alarm sirens and emergency lights of fire trucks are activated.

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Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson. Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Just out of reach: magic, opacity, and unknowability

Theodoros Kyriakides and Richard Irvine. 

Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson (above). Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Eynhallow frank, Eynhallow free
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the sea
A roaring roost on every side
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the tide

– traditional Orkney rhyme

“But what do you mean by magic?” There’s a long pause in the conversation; the anthropologist wonders whether they’ve asked the wrong question. “Well I suppose I mean… well, magic… like Eynhallow.” To those familiar with Orkney, this small ‘holy island’ is rich in stories: once upon a time a coming-and-going island, rising from the sea only to disappear, until it was won over from the shape-shifting finfolk by the use of holy salt. Still the island retains an uncanny quality: in 1990 two people were said to have disappeared into thin air after 88 were counted off an excursion ferry to the uninhabited island and only 86 were counted back on.

But it is not only the stories surrounding Eynhallow that make it a figure of magic. It is also the sense of it being simultaneously proximate, yet remote. It looms near, just between Rousay and the Orkney Mainland; and yet, surrounded by the elemental forces of the “roaring roost” – the riptides rushing past, the meeting point of the great energies of the Atlantic and the North Sea – it seems inaccessible. It fits perfectly with another explanation of the qualities of magic offered during conversation in Orkney: “a sense of wonder… but just out of reach”.

The question “What do you mean by magic?” is not a straightforward one. In fact, it is a question which can easily be turned back onto the anthropologist working on the topic. If you are someone just going about your daily routine, this is of course a very valid response to someone trying to research your beliefs and practices. Curiously enough, the fact that magic is such an open category makes this a rich question for our research in Nicosia and Orkney. Magic means different things for different people: magic for some might denote spells. For others, it is a quality of the landscape. For others, psychic readings. For others, Harry Potter movies. In other words, the question “what do you mean by magic”, far from suggesting that ‘magic’ is an irrelevance, indicates the polysemy – the rich and varied range of meaning – this word has acquired in modernity.

At the same time, this question reveals the enigmatic stance people adopt in the presence of the suggestion of magic: it is, in this sense, a topic “just out of reach”, surrounded by opacity and uncertainty. In The Empty Seashell, an ethnography of witchcraft in Indonesia, Nils Bubandt writes that “the fundamental unknowability of the other” often acts as a prerequisite to the manifestation or suspicion of witchcraft. Witchcraft is hence emergent from the fact that we cannot ‘see through’ the intentions of others. On the one hand, such witchcraft is indented in the workings of a society: it proceeds through specific instances, practices, rituals and social structures. On the other hand, the forms of magic which emerge within our fieldwork showcase how magic in contemporary societies takes multiple forms, reflecting the pluralism of beliefs and habits.

Here, we encounter a different kind of “unknowability” to once again use Bubandt’s term of choice. To return to Orkney, on the island of Rousay ideas of ‘magic’ in the landscape are attested to by the many stories which surround the Neolithic chambered cairns and standing stones. The folklore attached to these places is rich and well recorded. Yet, importantly, many layers of unknowing intervene in any given ‘encounter’ with the storied landscape: Protestant Christian attempts to rid the populace of superstition; population displacement due to clearance and emigration; population change due to incomers from beyond Orkney; secularisation. None of these strips the landscape of its potency, but each contributes to its sense of being ‘out of reach’.

Working back through these layers to understand the occluded landscape seems to generate new forms of interaction: for example, given the closure of the island’s kirks and the decline of island churchgoing, it is not altogether surprising that an archaeological site should become the setting for an island wedding rather than the kirk. Meanwhile, in recent decades modern standing stones have joined their ancient counterparts. The work involved in quarrying and erecting such stones makes this by no means a flippant undertaking, though neither is it a phenomenon that in all cases can be taken too seriously. Modern stones might be said to be “watching over us, helping us as they’ve always done”, but in another case might be said to have been erected more playfully, a landmark to direct tourists to what was built as a holiday home.

So, expanding on Bubandt’s idea of unknowability, the opacity of magic in modernity does not only mean that one is not sure of others’ intentions – it can also imply that people are never too sure of what magic might mean for them, or even if they ‘believe’ in it. Take the example of the Cypriot non-believer who still puts faith in his or her lucky pendant under situations of play. Or, the example of someone who does not attend church but finds herself reciting a trio of prayers under a certain situation of distress (one for each member of the Holy Trinity). On such occasions, pendant and prayer are both granted a semblance of automatic efficacy which Marcel Mauss identified as a central tenet of magical belief.

Why do people entertain such halfhearted beliefs if they don’t really believe in the efficacy of magic? When we ask this question, we notice that the people we talk to approach the suggestion of magic, much like their belief in it, in indirect manner. In Cyprus, many do not explicitly believe in magic, but nevertheless find that magic often occupies part of daily stories and rumours they hear, and also of childhood memories. We hence often find that we are conducting a kind of archaeology of magical beliefs, working through strata of unknowing. Magic is, nowadays, concealed under several temporal layers of personal and collective amnesia, but also recollection. We also find, however, that such social conditions don’t necessarily dilute the notion of magic amid increasing narratives and processes of unbelief and secularism, but rather grant it a vague semblance of autonomy and unpredictability. In such sense, conditions of social, political and financial uncertainty – characteristic of contemporary societies – can be understood as not erasing but rather as producing (or maybe reproducing) particular forms of modern magic. It is a world where something is left partially ungrasped and out of reach, just enough for it to keep returning.

Sacrifices | A new film about tattoos, religion and pain

Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson are current and former PhD candidates in the Religious Studies Department. In 2017 they had their first co-written article published for the new ‘Body and Religion’ journal. The article is titled “Sacrifices at the Altar of Transformation”, and it discusses the many and varied reasons why people might choose to include painful practices as part of their religious activity.

A first peer-reviewed publication is an important milestone in any academic career, and given the subject matter, their choice of celebration was always going to be unusual. In this short film, they reveal their journey, from first conversations, to Lillyink Tattoo studio in Reading, and back to the BASR conference where it all began. Along the way, they speculate on what the study of such practices can tell us about how human beings understand suffering.

Film by David Robertson and Theo Wildcroft. Featuring Steve from Lillyink Reading and Professor Graham Harvey as doctoral supervisor.

Fostering Creativity in Higher Education: the Case for Religious Studies

By Stefanie Sinclair

[This piece originally appeared in the Bulletin of the British Association for the Study of Religion 132 (Nov 2018). You can read the full issue here. Stefanie was the recipient of the first BASR Teaching Award, and this piece celebrates her achievement.] 

Creativity is in demand. As Gaspar and Mabic point out, “in the last decade creativity has become a mantra which is used by politicians, businessmen, employees, teachers, professors, students and others. Creativity is seen as a cure for a wide range of [social, economic and educational] problems” (2015, p. 598). It is valued as an important life skill, linked to increased levels of wellbeing and depth of learning. It can build resilience and help solve complex problems. Creativity has also been identified as an increasingly desirable graduate attribute that cannot easily be outsourced or replaced by machines in a labour market increasingly dominated by technology (Blessinger and Watts 2017, 3; Csikszentmihalyi 2006; Gauntlett 2011; Osmani et al. 2015; Rampersad and Patel 2014; Robinson 2011).

While there is wide-ranging agreement that higher education can play an important role in fostering creativity, there have been claims that it is not doing enough and there are “calls for a more rigorous approach to teaching creativity” in higher education (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1). However, there are many different views on what creativity actually is and how its development can be best supported. Studies have, for example, found that academic staff and students in higher education often have different understandings of the concept of creativity. When interviewing academic staff from a range of subject disciplines at Liverpool John Moores University and University College London (UCL), Edwards et al. (2006) found that the academics they interviewed tended to associate creativity with originality, with being imaginative, with exploring or ‘adventuring’ for the purpose of discovery, with synthesis and making sense of complexity and with communication. A parallel study of students’ perception of creativity, on the other hand, found that students tended to associate creativity with freedom from routine and from the need to justify oneself, with expression of imagination, with independence, risk and sometimes superficiality. Students also typically described creativity as something personal and infectious (Oliver et al. 2006). These differences highlight the elusive and complex nature of this concept (Kleinman 2008, 209). Notions of creativity range from understanding it as an elite enterprise that is reserved for the talented and gifted few, to the increasingly influential understanding of creativity as a powerful collaborative process that can and should be harnessed in everyone (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1; Robinson 2011). I find the latter particularly convincing.

However, in an environment determined by league tables, funding cuts, stifling levels of bureaucracy and the looming pressure of the REF and TEF, where students are increasingly encouraged to approach education as customers purchasing qualifications, it can be very challenging to inject creativity into the curriculum and adopt a greater focus on teaching and learning as a collaborative process of discovery and growth. So what can we do to address this? Csikszentmihalyi argues that “if one wishes to inject creativity in the educational system, the first step might be to help students find out what they truly love, and help them immerse themselves in the domain” (2006, xix). He contends that to support this process, it is important that teachers model the joy of learning and the passion for their subject discipline themselves. As Kleinman concludes, “academics need to be perceived and involved as agents in their own and their students creativity rather than as objects of, or more pertinently, deliverers of a particular ‘creativity agenda’ “(2008, 216). As part of the Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences teaching scholarship seminar series on ‘Creativity and criticality in online learning’ colleagues got together last summer to talk to each other about their passion for their respective subject areas – and some filmed each other talking about this on their smart phones. In the midst of stressful deadlines and piles of paperwork, many colleagues commented on how refreshing and energising they found it to remind themselves and each other of their deep passion for their subject areas and for teaching and research. In the context of the many pressures academics are facing, it is important not to lose sight of why we’re in ‘it’ in the first place, and it is important for our students to see this, too.

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The (Un)bearable Whiteness of Informationalist Religion

Syed Mustafa Ali, School of Computing and Communications, The Open University

This post continues the exploration of the ‘entanglement’ of race, religion and informational phenomena presented in my earlier work (see the bibliography at the end of the post). Following the lead of critical race and decolonial theorists, I understand ‘race’ as a global systemic/structural power formation, ‘religion’ as a tradition involving discursive and embodied practices (following the lead of anthropologist Talal Asad), and ‘information’ as “a difference that makes a difference” (following the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson).

Here, I want to focus on exploring Transhumanism and technological Posthumanism in relation to broader ‘informationalist’ currents associated with New Religious Movements (NRMs) emerging within ‘Western’ societies. By ‘informationalism’, I mean a paradigm (or worldview) in which all phenomena are held to be informational or computational in some sense. My concern is to interrogate both the what and how (that is, beliefs and practices) as well as the who and where (that is, the socio-political marking and location/situatedness) of proponents of informationalist religion(s).

I: The Transhumanist

To this end, we might begin by exploring Transhumanist and Posthumanist calls for embracing technological enhancement at various scales – individual, collective and cosmological – with a view to unpacking various tacit ‘religious’ and occult influences informing their discourses. Leading Transhumanist thinkers such as Nick Bostrom, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, Frank Tipler, and others, clearly demonstrate influences from  Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Masonism, Kabbalah and Christian Millennialism. These influences are even clearer in the beliefs and practices of explicitly informationalist religions, such as Anthony Levandowski’s ‘Way of the Future’, Martine Rothblatt’s cosmist ‘Terasem’ movement, Giulio Prisco’s ‘Turing Church’, and Bard and Jan Söderqvist’s ‘Syntheism’.

Having established the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of such informationalist religions, we can consider their ‘who’ and ‘where’. Transhumanists, technological Posthumanists and proponents of informationalist religion tend to be wealthy white males located in ‘the West’, and the few notable exceptions only serve to confirm the rule. This is firmly supported by demographic surveys of Transhumanists, where we also find a concomitant overwhelming dismissal of the relevance of ‘race’ in their responses to questions about ethnicity and related matters.

I want to conclude by offering some critical race-theoretical and decolonial speculations as to the significance of these findings vis-à-vis contemporary socio-political developments, including the rise of the ‘alt-Right’ in the US and the ‘far right’ in Europe in the context of what human geographer Alistair Bonnett has referred to as the phenomenon of ‘White Crisis’. I suggest that an (un)bearably white informationalism needs to be understood against the backdrop of a long durée Western hegemony that is increasingly being subjected to contestation from various quarters. I further suggest that the discourse on ‘existential risk’ associated with artificial intelligence (AI) might usefully be understood as a form of ‘White Crisis’ literature, ‘entangled’ with various strands of apocalyptic thought. I will develop this thesis further in an article in a forthcoming special issue of the journal Zygon.

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David Robertson appeared on the Religious Studies Project this week, interviewing Ann Taves of the University of California, Santa Barbara. She argues that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

Remembering the remarkable life of Sister Nivedita

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

It is singularly appropriate that in 2017, the seventieth year after Indian Independence, English Heritage put up a blue plaque on the house in Wimbledon where Margaret Noble (1867-1911) once lived. 2017 was coincidentally also the 150th anniversary of her birth. Margaret Noble is little remembered in the UK today, but the caption on the plaque, ‘Educationalist and Campaigner for Indian Independence’, hints as to why she is still remembered in India, more commonly as Sister Nivedita (the Dedicated), the name given to her by her guru Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902).

Such was Nivedita’s contribution to Indian national life that an Indian postage stamp was issued to mark the centenary of her birth, and the 150th anniversary of her birth last year was celebrated in India by various public events.

Born in Ireland, Nivedita was educated in Halifax, Yorkshire, and then taught in various schools in England and North Wales, before moving to London where she established her own progressive school. It was in London that she met Vivekananda. Although it might not raise many eye-brows today, it was anything but commonplace in the late nineteenth-century for a British woman to become the initiated disciple of a Hindu guru, especially when this involved abandoning her former life in London to begin anew in Calcutta. Nivedita opened a school for girls in Calcutta and participated in relief work organised by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, the organisation created by Vivekananda in the name of his guru. A tireless networker, Nivedita played a major part in contemporary debates about Indian ‘national art’, collected Hindu and Buddhist stories, and was the first to propose a design for an Indian national flag. After Vivekananda’s death, she became increasingly active in the growing campaign for independence from British rule—including with groups who embraced violent means to secure their political goal. She was, not unsurprisingly, a controversial figure. Her public defence of aspects of popular Hindu practice drew censure from both Indian reformers in India and in her former circle in London. She repeatedly asserted her Christian identity while embracing aspects of Hindu practice and belief, and continued to affirm her loyalty to the British Empire until quite late in life, even as she became increasingly involved in the independence movement. Such evidence of the complexities and contradictions of her transnational life merit closer exploration, but have been largely by-passed by biographers with close links to the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Their accounts, perhaps understandably, focus on her guru’s transformative effect on her life.

Nivedita was not the only British woman of her time who was drawn to the service of India, and particularly of Indian women, at a time when India offered some British women more scope for a public role than they would have then had at home. What is striking about Nivedita is that, although she clearly worked for change in some areas, she did not seek to ‘reform’ India according to Christian or other convictions shaped in Europe. Consistent with her controversial defence of Hindu devotional practice, she identified herself with India, something that her guru deliberately fostered.

Nivedita was an Irishwoman by birth whose life was shaped by her education and career as a teacher in England, yet she gave the latter half of her life to the service of India rather than to the cause of Irish freedom, giving up the school she had established in London and the social standing that brought her. Raised Protestant, she toyed at one time with converting to Roman Catholicism, studied Buddhism, and after a period of religious agnosticism famously became the disciple of a Hindu guru. With her remarkable career in India being recently commemorated, Nivedita’s life reminds us that the blurring of notions of religious and national identity, which we tend to associate with accelerating globalising processes of recent decades, have rather deeper roots and antecedents.

You can read more about Nivedita’s remarkable life in ‘The Making of the Ideal Transnational Disciple: Unravelling Biographies of Margaret Noble/Sister Nivedita’ in Philippe Bornet (ed.), Translocal Lives and Religion: Connections between Asia and Europe in the Late Modern World (Equinox, forthcoming 2019).


RS Options for Arts and Humanities Students

Did you know there are a variety of ways you can take Religious Studies modules as part of an Arts and Humanities qualification at the Open University? In this podcast, Stefanie Sinclair and John Maiden talk you through the different options, and the different Religious Studies modules on offer.

Religious Studies is a great addition to other Arts and Humanities subjects. As John Maiden puts it:

Religions are an important aspect of all human cultures past and present. And Religious Studies is not just about world views or internalised beliefs though we do look at belief very carefully. It’s also about great works of art, popular culture, national and international politics, public and private practices, the kind of everyday doing of religion. So, whether you’re studying music or literature or philosophy or history, you name it, you’ll find that Religious Studies links really well with any other Arts and Humanities discipline.

Click here to download a transcript.


Philip Williamson | Remembrance Day: the British Churches and National Commemoration of the War Dead since 1914

Here’s the third and final keynote from our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference, recorded Feb 21st 2018. Philip Williamson (Durham University) gives a timely presentation entitled Remembrance Day: the British Churches and National Commemoration of the War Dead since 1914.

Most historical work on commemoration emphasises the civil creations from 1919 onwards: Armistice day, the two-minutes silence, the Cenotaph, the War Graves Commission and war memorials, and the British Legion.  Aside from the burial of the Unknown Warrior, the churches are treated almost as adjuncts. Yet British church leaders had been involved with remembrance since 1914, and from 1919 they created their own religious commemoration of Remembrance day, which in 1946 replaced Armistice day as the official occasion for national commemoration.  Against the supposed trends towards secularisation, the churches acquired and retain a leading part in remembrance of the war dead. Yet some tension always existed between the civil and religious commemorations, and what secured the place of the churches in national rituals also brought compromises. This paper will consider how the protestant churches created a new religious commemoration of the war dead; how remembrance contributed to co-operation between leaders of the various British churches; how the character of Remembrance has changed; and how in national commemoration the churches and the state arrived at an alliance of church religion and civil religion.

Religion and its Publics (Part 1)

Jonathan Tuckett of the Religious Studies Project attended our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives conference in February, armed with an iPhone. Drawing from the themes of the conference, he came up with some (difficult) questions to ask the attendees – including our students Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson, and Lecturers Marion Bowman, David Robertson, Paul-Francois Tremlett and Suzanne Newcombe.